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Eric Gelbart started showing porn at R Place, the bar he manages, to deter clueless homophobes and bar cruisers who wandered in to start trouble. Gelbart was trying to reclaim the atmosphere of his club, and as far as that's concerned, he thinks he succeeded. "We knew it was illegal, but it really cleaned up our bar," Gelbart says.
But SPD officer John O'Neill wasn't as enthused. O'Neill and fellow SPD officer Ryan Gallagher—who have been on the bar beat ever since violence at two Capitol Hill clubs renewed concerns about safety in the neighborhood—paid Gelbart a visit to warn him about the videos back in March. "[O'Neill] was shaking with anger," said Gelbart. "I don't know why, but it really seemed to strike him in a personal way."
After the visit, R Place stopped playing the videos (which, according to Gelbart and a couple of the club's DJs, consisted of a few guys flashing their pubes), but other bars around Capitol Hill say they've run into similar issues with the pair. Neither officer was available for comment, and an SPD spokesman did not return a call.
State law bans clubs and bars from displaying pictures or videos "depicting pornography, or a sexual act." The law—a vestige of the days when liquor was first banned from strip clubs and bars were required to have seating for children—holds all clubs and restaurants to the same standards. Susan Reams, a spokeswoman for the state liquor control board, says, "All licensees have to follow the law."
Managers at other gay bars say the officers have visited them repeatedly in the last couple of months to warn them about porn. At the Seattle Eagle, manager Keith Christiansen says the pair told him to take down a poster of "breasts and butt cheeks" that's been hanging in the bar since 2002. He says O'Neill and Gallagher have been showing up on a weekly basis to complain about pornographic videos and images.
"We have judges, attorneys, police officers, who all come in here because it's a safe place for them," said Christiansen. "This kind of attention [from the police] has cut my business in half."
Back in 1998, Christiansen says he went before the liquor board and asked for permission to display his posters. In spite of the law, he says, they let him do it. But because of an increase in enforcement in the area and, Christiansen says, the fact that O'Neill and Gallagher are new to the neighborhood, that era of tacit acceptance has ended. "This is a whole new breed of people," he said. "They don't understand what the Hill is about."